Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake

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Notes on Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. This set of Tower Notes is 68 pages long and is sold as a fully illustrated PDF file.

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A free sample, text only, is provided below, including introductions and poems from both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience

Introduction: William Blake’s Vision of Innocence

Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience is a fully integrated and finished work of great complexity and beauty. As it stands, published in 1794, its two sections, comprising what Blake called the ‘contraries’ of innocence and experience form a creative symbiosis, so that it has become almost impossible to think of The Lamb without The Tyger ; difficult, in fact, to interpret one poem without the other. There is also a complex symbiosis at work in these poems between illustration and text. Sometimes Blake’s illustration will include experience motifs in the design for a poem of innocence and vice versa (the gentle numinous animal depicted with the text of The Tyger is a good example of the latter).

There is, however, another way of looking at the Songs , which is to see them as part of the development of Blake’s own ideas. There is much less sure ground when taking this interpretative route, which implies that Blake, at one stage, held a vision of innocence that had yet to be integrated with its contrary. This may well have never been the case; there is no means by which the poet’s mind at different stages of his life can be opened to us in this way. What evidence there is for development is simply present in the chronology: Songs of Innocence was published separately in 1789; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell , which expounds Blake’s doctrine of contraries, was composed between 1790 and 1793; the complete Songs of Innocence and Experience was published in 1794. The fact that these dates also span the years between the hopeful idealism of the first months of the French Revolution and Robespierre’s Terror is almost too convenient in its suggestion of an analogy between political and social idealism descending into bloody chaos and Blake’s vision of innocence being superseded by a subsequent vision of experience.

The evidence for development, therefore, is at best circumstantial; nevertheless, it is almost certainly wrong to suggest no development took place at all. Perhaps the most fruitful way of discussing this aspect of the Songs is to suggest that development is actually a theme of the whole work, and the notion of developing from innocence to experience was there from the start, as it is an integral theme of many of the earliest Songs of Innocence . It is difficult, in fact, to read Blake’s vision of innocence without an awareness that a very different vision is never very far away, just as the tree, with its associations of stability and security, and frequently depicted in the Songs of Innocence , is sometimes entwined with a serpent-like vine, suggestive of experience.

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William Blake